Aral Sea: Central Asia’s biggest environmental disaster

The meeting held in Tajikistan by the Executive Committee International Fund of Saving the Aral Sea brought up the biggest environmental disaster of Central Asia, which occurred with the drying up of the lake, on the agenda again. Studies have shown that Aral, once the world's fourth-largest lake, is just a ninth of its former size 60 years ago and only a third as deep, with its total volume a 15th of the level in the 1960s. Then, the Aral Sea covered 68,000 square kilometers (about 26,255 square miles) and housed 1,083 cubic km (about 260 cubic mi) of water. It was 426 km (about 265 mi) long, 284 km wide, and 68 meters (223 feet) at its deepest point. In recent years, the lake's surface area has shrunk to just 8,000 square km, its water volume to 75 cubic km, and its deepest point to 20 m, with the fresh-water sea bifurcated due to its falling level. This coincided with a vast expansion of irrigated agricultural land in the region by the Soviet Union from 4.5 million hectares (11.1 million acres) to 7 million hectares for cotton cultivation. Between 1960 and 1990, this increased water demand led to the decline in the Aral Sea's main tributaries, the Seyhun (Syr Darya) and Ceyhun (Amu Darya) Rivers. Former seabed becomes desert Located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aralkum Desert was left in the wake of the sea's retreat of up to 170 km from its old shores by 2020. Described as the "youngest desert in the world," the desert formed across 60,000 square km where the water had receded. To make matters worse, approximately 100 million tons of salty dust dragged away from the desert by wind has left the region in the face of major environmental disaster. These dusts spread across Central Asia, with experts saying they were found even on the highest glaciers of the Pamir Mountains far hundreds of kilometers southeast. Soil erosion and air pollution that this caused has also had negative effects on public health in the region, home to about 2 million people, causing the spread of various diseases and increasing infant mortality. Fish disappeared The drying up of the Aral Sea has also severely damaged biodiversity in the basin, where most of the over 300 plant, 35 bird, and 23 other animal species that once populated it no longer exist. Sixty years ago, an average of 60,000 tons of fish were caught annually in the lake, which was home to 34 species. But as the lake dried up and its salinity shot up to 10 times its former level, almost all of the fish in the lake died out. Fish canneries in Muynak city were closed and left in ruin, while countless abandoned fishing boats have turned the old beach into a scrapyard. Vozrojdenie, once an island located in the middle of the lake and where the former Soviet Union tested nearly 40 biological weapons in 1954-1990, completely merged with the land after the waters receded. Afforestation efforts Sand and dust storms have caused financial damages of USD100 million every year in the countries of the region, which have launched afforestation efforts on the dry Aral seabed to reduce this loss and improve the public health. For this purpose, tamarisk trees and other desert vegetation have been planted in an area of 1.62 million hectares in the drying areas of the Aral Sea as part of a project launched in 2017 to create a "green belt." The environmental situation in the Aral Sea region is expected to benefit significantly from these afforestation projects in up to 12 years. Summit after 5 years The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, which was established in 1993 by the presidents of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan to overcome the region's environmental crisis and improve the socioeconomic situation in the Aral Sea basin, is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The fund's Executive Committee, where each member country assumes a five-year term presidency, has met 10 times to date. The last meeting was held in 2018 in Turkmenistan

Source: Philippines News Agency